Women in ICT a rare breed

A quick scan of almost any ICT department, ICT conference or vendor environment confirms that women who embrace technology as a lifelong career remain a rare breed.

Friday was International Women's Day -- a perfect opportunity to examine the appalling lack of women in ICT.

A quick scan of almost any ICT department, ICT conference or vendor environment -- from the trenches to the corner office -- confirms that women who embrace technology as a lifelong career remain a rare breed.

There is no doubt that the opportunities for women in technology have advanced in the past few decades, as have education initiatives aimed at levelling the playing field and attracting women into the industry.

The industry as a whole, however, continues to suffer a skills shortage that is only worsening. A recent study by Swinburne University of Technology substantiates the drastic decline in ICT graduates entering the workforce, with overall enrolments falling by 46 percent since 2001.

And within this trend, the ratio of women to men continues to decline: in the seven years since 2001, the proportion of women enrolling in ICT courses in Australia dropped 6 percent to 20 percent on average.

Against the backdrop of plummeting enrolments, this represents a staggering 51 percent decline in the number of women studying ICT. For every woman rising to prominence or embarking on a career in IT or undertaking an IT course at university, there is another opting out.

This is despite recent Australian research from James Cook University, which concludes that women find ICT to be a rewarding, socially useful and satisfying career. On the whole, women disagree with prevailing negative stereotypes about the wider industry.

Yet the reasons women give for leaving are the same ones I heard two decades ago: they are the micro inequalities such as wage discrimination, the "boys' club" and the lack of work/life balance. The James Cook study suggests that this may be an organisational problem founded in management practices, and not one that is necessarily entrenched in a wider industry culture.

What remains unspoken in much of the discussion surrounding these issues is the effect this increasing imbalance will have on the long-term prospects of the IT industry and individual companies. Where organisational demographics do not represent the social diversity of the marketplace, their ability to anticipate and meet the demands of consumers is seriously compromised.

And women bring different, and equally important skills to the workplace. Addressing the number of women in the workforce is important to establish the kinds of adaptive, collaborative and versatile enterprises that will thrive in the fast-paced global economy.

More than just stemming the tide of the ongoing skills shortages, encouraging women to get involved in the production of ICT goods and services is imperative for the competitive advantage of Australian organisations and the wider industry.